Sucrose, extracted and purified in specialized mill factories, is used as raw material in the food industry or is fermented to produce ethanol. Ethanol is produced on a large scale by the Brazilian sugarcane industry. Sugarcane is the world's largest crop by production quantity, with 1.9 billion tonnes produced in 2016, and Brazil accounting for 41% of the world total. In 2012, The Food and Agriculture Organization estimated it was cultivated on about 26×106 hectares (6.4×107 acres), in more than 90 countries.
The global demand for sugar is the primary driver of sugarcane agriculture. Cane accounts for 80% of sugar produced; most of the rest is made from sugar beets. Sugarcane predominantly grows in the tropical and subtropical regions (sugar beets grow in colder temperate regions). Other than sugar, products derived from sugarcane include falernum, molasses, rum, cachaça (a traditional spirit from Brazil), bagasse, and ethanol. In some regions, people use sugarcane reeds to make pens, mats, screens, and thatch. The young, unexpanded inflorescence of Saccharum edule (duruka or tebu telor) is eaten raw, steamed, or toasted, and prepared in various ways in Southeast Asia, including Fiji and certain island communities of Indonesia.
The Persians, followed by the Greeks, encountered the famous "reeds that produce honey without bees" in India between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. They adopted and then spread sugarcane agriculture. Merchants began to trade in sugar from India, which was considered a luxury and an expensive spice. In the 18th century AD, sugarcane plantations began in Caribbean, South American, Indian Ocean and Pacific island nations and the need for laborers became a major driver of large human migrations, including slave labor and indentured servants.
Sugarcane is a tropical, perennial grass that forms lateral shoots at the base to produce multiple stems, typically three to four m (10 to 13 ft) high and about 5 cm (2 in) in diameter. The stems grow into cane stalk, which when mature constitutes around 75% of the entire plant. A mature stalk is typically composed of 11–16% fiber, 12–16% soluble sugars, 2–3% nonsugars, and 63–73% water. A sugarcane crop is sensitive to the climate, soil type, irrigation, fertilizers, insects, disease control, varieties, and the harvest period. The average yield of cane stalk is 60–70 tonnes per hectare (24–28 long ton/acre; 27–31 short ton/acre) per year. However, this figure can vary between 30 and 180 tonnes per hectare depending on knowledge and crop management approach used in sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane is a cash crop, but it is also used as livestock fodder.